As the situation for press freedom in Egypt remains under scrutiny, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi continues to overlook journalists’ voices demanding their rights and an immediate end of imprisonment.
Al-Sisi, who met Monday with an African delegation of editors-in-chief, made assurances on press freedom amid the socio-political situation of the country, which the president believes to be “free” and “stable”.
He told journalists that Egypt respects and appreciates the role of the media and ensures press freedom. “There are no restrictions on it,” he said as he pointed to the “credible and patriotic coverage of local media”.
This follows the massive media coverage that came along the “gigantic” opening of the New Suez Canal, which sought to propagate the event as a huge success for the country. Nonetheless, this does not rule out that Al-Sisi is barely criticised in the media at other times. Needless to say, this “patriotic” media believes in adopting an aggressive tone against any politically opposed voice through a campaign of “betrayal and mistrust”.
As has always been the case in Egypt, the president and his regime act on the grounds that the media is the state’s propaganda tool, supposedly meant to embellish, praise, and even worship the leader. Since the president finds the media to be “reliable” and “positively fulfilling its role”, one wonders why the media has been struggling to maintain its freedom after the state found that it failed to provide “accurate information” on insurgent operations in North Sinai early July.
The issue that came to the forefront under Al-Sisi’s presidency is the army’s withholding of information on, for instance, casualties in its counterterrorism operations, despite the media’s eagerness to report on these matters.
In addition to blaming media for its “inaccuracy”, it was insinuated that, to a certain extent, they have aided “terrorism propaganda”, which resulted in further restrictions on the press, as stated in a new anti-terrorism draft law.
Further, the State Information Services (SIS), in charge of foreign press affairs, was tasked with sending out emails to foreign correspondents “to correct their stories”. Not surprisingly, the SIS was also present in Al-Sisi’s meeting with the African journalists.
What is even more troubling for press freedom in Egypt is that the president continues to firmly assert to outsiders that no journalist is in prison, while over 18 Egyptian journalists are behind bars, including some who have been sentenced to life in prison.
The president finds it convenient to justify himself by stating that, firstly, nobody is in prison for publishing crimes, and secondly, that the ongoing trials of journalists – which he finds discomforting –started “before he took leadership of the country”.
The president must be familiar with the name Mahmoud Abu Zeid ‘Shawkan’, who spent 10 months in jail before the presidential elections , and 13 more since Al-Sisi’s official inauguration in June 2014. The detained photojournalist will soon complete two years behind bars without trial, and nobody knows how many more he will spend “under the president’s term”.
Moreover, in a clear reference to the Al Jazeera journalists’ case, Al-Sisi reiterated previous statements that he “would rather deport journalists to their countries”. However, this too is highly problematic. For one, it was Al-Sisi who issued the law allowing the deportation of foreign defendants. Nevertheless, Al Jazeera’s Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, who was pressured into dropping his Egyptian nationality, is still restricted from travelling.
Further, with Al-Sisi’s attention focused on foreign journalists, the fate of detained Egyptian journalists is neglected. The truth is that under his presidency, journalists may not be persecuted for publishing crimes for the most part, but they are being prosecuted for and while doing their jobs nonetheless. Their imprisonment is an indicator of a decline in press freedom, and not the opposite.
Al-Sisi speaks as though, under his presidency, no one has read local and international reports assessing Egypt’s freedoms. In turn, he makes no point to state otherwise, and there has been no progress towards making a real difference.